The Development of Self-Regulation in Young Children
Self-regulation has attracted the interest of both the general public and educators in recent years—most of the interest has been generated by stories of children who are "out of control." Self-regulation, often called self-control or self-direction, involves children's capacity for controlling emotions, interacting in positive ways with others, avoiding inappropriate or aggressive actions, and becoming an autonomous learner (Bronson, 2000, p. 32). Self-regulation is a psychosocial task that leads to an increasing sense of autonomy and initiative, so that by middle childhood, children can act independently as thinkers and playmates (Cooper, 2006).
Existing research suggests that the beginning of self-regulation is evident at birth and is immediately influenced by both individual temperament and environment. Kopp (1982) describes a developmental progression from control of arousal and sensory motor functions to a beginning ability to comply with the suggestions of others by the end of the first year. During ages 3 and 4, self-regulation becomes more sophisticated, and by 6 to 8 years, children are capable of deliberate action, planning ahead, and conscious control (Bronson, 2000, p. 33). Self-regulation can be studied or explained from those same perspectives we describe for children's development in the next chapter.
Because we know that self-regulation influences children's social competence and success in school, it is important to look for ways to support and encourage its development. Much of what you will hear as "developmentally appropriate practice" is what young children need for their development of self-regulation. The kinds of support vary with children's age, but all domains of their development will influence self-regulation. For infants, there needs to be recognizable patterns in their interactions, signals for the essential routines in their day (such as food, comfort, and sleep), and the opportunity to test their ability to control or affect the environment. For toddlers, opportunities for exploration and autonomy are necessary along with role models of appropriate behavior sequences. The support that language can provide to toddlers as they carry out simple requests and label their own actions is also critical. For preschoolers and kindergarten children, the essential opportunities are for more complex directions, clear sets of rules, skill-appropriate responsibilities, understandable consequences of their actions, and again, positive role models. Finally, for primary-grade children, opportunities for complex problem-solving strategies, individual choices, support for individual effort, and experiences with positive, trusting, and respectful adults are the supports needed for developing self-regulation.
For children from preschool to primary grades, Cooper (2006) suggests the use of literature with main characters who are "managing society's growing expectations of conformity and self-control". She reminds us that children's books have "historically helped children negotiate the social and emotional terrains of childhood", supporting their growing up (Russell, 2005).
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